It’s not until you’re standing in front of a 20-foot-tall statue of Mikhail Gorbachev with a suitcase and what looks like a cat carrier in his hands that you realize just how little sleep you’ve had over the previous few days.
I grip the bars of the steel gate separating me from the father of Perestroika, blinking back the jet lag as my mind struggles to process this seemingly random monument’s existence in rural Germany. Behind me are an almost equally inexplicable number of windmills, scattered across acres of greenery as though dropped from a passing Dutch tornado. They spin silently and without judgment, their bright paint conjuring a Technicolor mish-mash of Oz and Hansel and Gretel.
There’s a rustling on the path that cuts through the waist-high cattails growing around the narrow dirt path where we’ve parked. I look over my shoulder to see my traveling companions, each of us piloting one of three candy-colored Volkswagen Arteons, emerging from the foliage. The small group converges around the cars.
For a moment, no one speaks. Then, this: “Let’s get out of here before we end up in a witch’s stew.”
It’s all the convincing we need to leave behind what later turns out to be Gifhorn’s minaret-laden Glocken-Palast, a forgotten relic of post-Cold War friendship and windmill worship. Back on the road, I’m uncertain as to how much protection the Arteon’s sloped steel roof offers against ancient forest magicks, so I avoid looking in the rearview mirror until the last wood-paned vane rotates slowly below the horizon.
Perhaps I was worried for naught. After all, it is out here in the gentle hills 50 miles east of Hanover that Volkswagen’s newest four-door coupe was conceived and then built, which perhaps imbues in its DNA some type of resistance to hexes. I keep a keen eye on each flitting shadow as the distance between us and the Glocken-Palast increases, but I see nothing other than the occasional tractor kicking dust down a country lane; a strangely buck-toothed, life-size statue of a moose; and an ostrich farm.
Much like an appetite for flightless fowl, the Arteon is itself an acquired taste. Ostensibly replacing the equally sleek-looking CC, a car that piqued little more than a passing interest in American audiences, the large-ish four-door arrives as the great, SUV-driven cull of the sedan is in full swing.
There are improvements, of course, over the CC. Chiefly, the Arteon makes use of the same liftback design that is all the rage with Audi A7 and Tesla Model S owners, adding a useful bullet point that salespeople can enthusiastically point to when asked about practicality from crossover-mad shoppers. Then there’s the cabin, which rides the edge of upscale but—more important—no longer forces rear seat riders to duck and cover under the fastback’s trestle as was required in the CC.
Is it enough to keep the Arteon from feeling out of step with the rest of the automotive market? In a world where even an independent like BMW offers dozens of sport-utility flavors, VW has been strangely hesitant—or simply late—in expanding beyond its Tiguan-Touareg one-two punch in America, with the large Atlas making its debut only years after rivals were well-entrenched in the game.
From my perspective in the driver’s seat, the Arteon isn’t likely to find much of a home at home, either. Almost every vehicle I encounter from behind its wheel is a compact hatchback; a stubby, slab-sided van; or some crossover-like variant on either of those two themes. The restrictive funnel that is Europe’s secondary roadway infrastructure, combined with the even more difficult parking restrictions found in any urban area, conspires against cars like the Arteon.
And so Volkswagen has set the sedan adrift, caught between the changing tastes of American buyers and the stark realities of Germany’s own automotive environment. It’s a shame, truly. My lizard brain, still conscious enough to fight through my flitting attention span and encroaching cognitive crash, certainly appreciates the confident and almost engaging manner in which the Arteon dispatches curvier sections of the road. It’s a cruiser that feels akin to any other similarly sized VW in recent memory, with a style quotient that pushes its visual impact well past that of the competent but comparatively homely Passat.
Ultimately, however, it may not matter. As the road winds back towards Wolfsburg, VW’s headquarters, and—mercifully—the promise of sleep, I detour around the automaker’s factory and end up cobbling down an unmarked pathway of broken asphalt. The Arteon and I emerge alongside an abandoned waterpark, its vast stretch of numbered parking spots now overgrown with grass and shrubs that have no memory of splashing, shrieking children or exhausted and sodden parents.
In the distance, the massive blades of Germany’s modern arsenal of electricity-generating wind turbines cast a clockwork shadow on the pockmarked terrain before me. Their enormous size and solemn ubiquity are an inescapable reminder of just how quaint the Glocken-Palast’s grist-and-water pumpers are when seen in a modern context.
It could be that the Volkswagen Arteon is simply the right car at the wrong time in history, the honing of a concept that now seems as dated as the idea of a mid-’90s Gorbachev laying the cornerstone for a forgotten palace of peace and artisanal aeolian architecture. Like last summer’s half-remembered sunset, the sedan is fading into our culture’s endless trove of recyclable nostalgia.
2019 Volkswagen Arteon Specifications
|ENGINE||2.0 turbocharged DOHC 16-valve inline-4; 268 hp, 258 lb-ft|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD/AWD sedan|
|EPA MILEAGE||20–22/27–31 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||191.4 x 73.7 x 56.5 in|
|WEIGHT||3,655–3,854 lb (est)|
|0–60 MPH||5.9–6.0 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||155 mph|